Many Voices Sounding from the 1930s

October 20, 2009
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This post honors the range of voices that emerged from the Writers’ Project. Marking crime novelist Jim Thompson’s 103rd birthday a few weeks ago, my piece on his work with the Oklahoma Writers’ Project is now posted on the Smithsonian Channel’s site. Thompson’s empathy with criminals and crime victims alike comes through in his writings for the WPA and in the true-crime pieces that he was writing for pulp magazines like True Detective and Master Detective.
Meanwhile in the Upper Midwest, Meridel Le Sueur was documenting struggles of women in her circle in St. Paul in her own take on the crime novel, The Girl, finally published only a decade ago. And in Madison, Aldo Leopold was capturing a quieter voice of the land in the Conservation essay for the WPA guide to Wisconsin. Earlier this month I had a chance to visit his Shack outside Baraboo, WI, where Leopold and his family forged a new land ethic, planting thousands of trees, restoring prairie habitat, and listening. There Leopold would hone the ideas that shaped A Sand County Almanac, another empathetic rendering of an American viewpoint some distance away from Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
A remarkable collection of WPA writers’ off-duty work is American Stuff, a 1937 anthology published by Viking that showcased their personal poetry, songs and stories – everything from convict songs that John Lomax recorded in Southern prison camps, to Thompson’s murderous “The End of the Book,” Richard Wright’s explosive “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” poems by Helen Neville, Claude McKay and Kenneth Rexroth (subject of a recent talk in San Jose), a story by Vardis Fisher, and woodcuts by WPA artists. American Stuff could bear reprinting.

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